By Elias Savada.
I can’t remember the first time I saw Psycho. I was a 10-year-old kid when Alfred Hitchcock’s menacing tale made more than a few people start avoiding motels. (Keep telling yourself: It’s only a motel! It’s only a motel!) The film wasn’t the kind of thriller my suburban middle-class parents would want to foist on their middle child for a Saturday matinee outing in late 1960. Little did they know that an equally horrific film, Freaks (1932) would change my life when I saw it in college. The few times our family hopped into the Oldsmobile and headed to the local single screen theater (the first multiplex opened in 1963 and they didn’t become popular venues until the 1970s), it was generally for Disney or other gentle fare. My best recollection is that Mr. Hitchcock scared the shit out of me during the film’s 1965 reissue, or during its New York City late-night debut on WABC-TV in June 1967.
Deteriorating memory aside, the film still never fails to impress. One of the folks most obsessed about the film and its director – and particularly the three-minute shower scene – is writer-director Alexandre O. Philippe (The People vs. George Lucas, The Life and Times of Paul the Psychic Octopus, Doc of the Dead), who hosted a weekly Hitchcock film series for his parents and their friends in Geneva, Switzerland. When he was 12. He eventually grew (up) so well-versed in the master of suspense that he’s now fashioned a black-and-white (with splashes of Technicolor) homage about the small yet eternally powerful sequence that caused several viewers to (temporarily) stop showering. For Philippe, his film is just the beginning of a calling to further clinically, nostalgically, and creatively examine the grand auteur.
So, appropriately, I watched 78/52 on Halloween. I suspect some of you are wondering about the title, right? It refers to the number of camera set-ups and edits in the scene. Not that anyone in the documentary actually dissects it on a frame-by-frame basis. The title’s not as simple as Hitchcock/Truffaut, the Kent Jones documentary I reviewed back in 2015, which, like Philippe’s current exploration, was also co-produced by Arte France.
Philippe’s first victim, er, interviewee, is glamor model/Playboy bunny Marli Renfro (featured in numerous 1950s men’s magazines and in the burlesque comedy-western Tonight for Sure, one of Francis Ford Coppola’s first films), who recounts her seven-day association with Psycho as Janet Leigh’s body double (cue Marli’s shapely cheesecake photo). Featured are a flow of actors (Elijah Wood, Illeana Douglas, Jamie Lee Curtis), relatives (Tere Carrubba, Hitchcock’s granddaughter; Osgood Perkins II, son of Tony, and, again, Jamie Lee Curtis), the affected/obsessives (producers Eli Roth and Alan Barnette; directors Aaron Moorhead, Justin Benson, Mick Garris, Gullermo del Toro, Peter Bogdanovich), lots of various guild folks (editors, sound technicians, musician, composers, including Danny Elfman and Amy Duddleston, who scored and edited the poorly received shot-by-shot 1998 Psycho retread); and scholars/critics (Stephen Rebello [Alfred Hitchcock and the Making of Psycho] and David Thomson [The Moment of Psycho]). This lengthy parade espouses on connections to, recollections of, historical and filmic context about, and inspirations from one of cinema’s most fawned-over sequences.
The talking heads actually have quite a few interesting things to say, even if most have been stated before. Director Karyn Kusama (The Invitation, Jennifer’s Body) comments, “It’s, I think, the first modern expression of the female body under assault, and, in some way, it’s most pure expression.” This statement takes on an interesting sidelight considering all the Hollywood executives and directors (Harvey Weinstein, James Toback, Brett Ratner, et al) who have fallen in the face of harassment allegations.
Archival Hitchcock interviews, quaintly loaded through an old television patrons of the Bates Motel might find in their rooms, provide further context. Interestingly, Hitchcock would later describe Psycho as a tongue-in-check joke, horrified that some people took the film seriously. Yet, Sir Alfred reveled in the film’s advertising campaign, enacting an edict that no one would be allowed into any performance after the film had started. “We say no one – and we mean no one – not even the manager’s brother, the President of the United States (is Trump tweeting about this yet?), or the Queen of England (God bless her)!”
Some of the commentary does clutch at straws and over-analyze, including the connection between Psycho and the birth of neo-atomic society in America. At other moments, talking heads watch Hitchcock’s film while also communally chatting with the interviewer (in the style of Errol Morris’s interrotron). Most Hitchcock enthusiasts are aware of the “secrets” showcased in the documentary. That graphic designer Saul Bass was brought in as a “pictorial consultant” to help with the pacing and visual design of the shower scene – his storyboards are shown over a reading of Paul Stefano’s vividly descriptive screenplay. Or how the 17th-century painting Suzanne et les Vieillards by Frans Van Mieris le Vieux plays a more psychological role than merely covering a Bates Motel peephole.
All the participants in this scholarly exercise appear to relish their involvement, trying to one-up other associates with bits and pieces of information and interesting thoughts. More fun facts fly in from various sources, such as the 1979 AFI Salute to Alfred Hitchcock revealing that Perkins did not play Norman behind the shower curtain, or that when Hitch saw the first rough cut he hated the film and wanted to cut it to fit an hour episode of Alfred Hitchcock Presents. Same old bon mots, now pleasantly viewed through some new and different angles.
I suspect Philippe had the most fun with an inspired sequence, an hour in, about how the stabbing sound effects were created. Under the commentary describing the process used to imitate a butcher knife cutting through human flesh, a parade of melons fill the screen, starkly lit in black-and-white as a “prop master” thrashes a shimmering blade through the blackness and into dozens of rinds. The pulp remnants are glistening like flesh off a corpse. The sweet juice glistens like blood pooling in the moonlight.
The requisite clip reel of how the shower scene influenced people and society follows, ranging from Mario Bava to Martin Scorsese to The Simpsons.
A plucky score by Jon Hegel (whose brother Phillip Lloyd Hegel created the sound design) channels Bernard Herrmann’s orchestral score through a respectful string quartet. The beautifully textured cinematography was handled by Robert Muratore, who shot all but one interview (renown editor Walter Murch) in front of a green screen, later replaced with a motel room set that looks like it’s ripped from the Universal backlot. The film is nicely pieced together by editor Chad Herschberger.
78/52 is a Hitchcock primer crafted with medical precision and heartfelt devotion. It’s a quenching exploration of an unsettling scene that has transcended pop culture.
Elias Savada is a movie copyright researcher, critic, craft beer geek, and avid genealogist based in Bethesda, Maryland. He helps program the Spooky Movie International Movie Film Festival, and previously reviewed for Film Threat and Nitrate Online. He served as an executive producer on the 2015 horror film German Angst, Penny Lane’s award-winning documentary Nuts!, and the forthcoming supernatural thriller Ayla. He co-authored, with David J. Skal, Dark Carnival: the Secret World of Tod Browning (the revised edition will be published in 2017 by Centipede Press).